Janice Bowling, a 67-year-old grandmother and Republican state senator from rural Tennessee, thought it only made sense that the city of Tullahoma be able to offer its local high-speed Internet service to areas beyond the city limits.
After all, many of her rural constituents had slow service or did not have access to commercial providers, like AT&T Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.
But a 1999 Tennessee law prohibits cities that operate their own Internet networks from providing access outside the boundaries where they provide electrical service. Bowling wanted to change that and introduced a bill in February to allow them to expand.
She viewed the network, which offers speeds about 80 times faster than AT&T and 10 times faster than Charter in Tullahoma according to advertised services, as a utility, like electricity, that all Tennesseans need.
“We don’t quarrel with the fact that AT&T has shareholders that it has to answer to,” Bowling said with a drawl while sitting in the spacious wood-paneled den of her log-cabin-style home. “That’s fine, and I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.”
At a meeting three weeks after Bowling introduced Senate Bill 2562, the state’s three largest telecommunications companies — AT&T, Charter, and Comcast Corp. — tried to convince Republican leaders to relegate the measure to so-called “summer study,” a black hole that effectively kills a bill. Bowling, described as “feisty” by her constituents, initially beat back the effort and thought she’d get a vote.
That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.
The threat surprised Bowling, and apparently AT&T’s ominous warning reached her colleagues as well. Days later, support in the Tennessee House for Bowling’s bill dissolved. AT&T had won.
“I had no idea the force that would come against this, because it’s just so reasonable and so necessary,” Bowling said.
AT&T and Phillips didn’t respond to emails asking for comment.
A national fight
Tullahoma is just one battlefront in a nationwide war that the telecommunications giants are fighting against the spread of municipal broadband networks. For more than a decade, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable Inc., and CenturyLink Inc. have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates.
The companies have succeeded in getting laws passed in 20 states that ban or restrict municipalities from offering Internet to residents.
Now the fight has gone national. The Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., is considering requests from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, to pre-empt state laws that block municipalities from building or expanding broadband networks, hindering economic growth, the cities argue.
If the FCC rules in favor of the cities, and the ruling survives any legal challenges, municipalities nationwide will be free to offer high-speed Internet to residents when they aren’t satisfied with the service provided by private telecommunications companies.
To better understand the municipal broadband debate, the Center for Public Integrity traveled to two southern cities. Tullahoma, which has a broadband network, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, which doesn’t.
City-provided broadband widespread
More than 130 cities from Norwood, Massachusetts, to Clallam County, Washington, currently offer fiber or cable Internet connections to their communities, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a group that supports municipal broadband. The municipalities are mostly small to mid-sized cities that critics say large Internet providers avoid because the return on investment is too low.
Cities build broadband networks to support businesses, improve health care and education, and attract jobs, they say. About 89 cities offer gigabit speeds, a rate that can download a 4.5 gigabyte movie in 36 seconds. The same file takes an hour at 10 megabits per second. Slower DSL or dial-up connections, which are common in rural areas, would take many hours longer.